FSA 'astonished' by slow industry action on additives

By Jess Halliday

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags E number Food Fsa

The UK's FSA has issued its harshest judgement on the food
industry's use of artificial colour and preservatives yet,
following the publication of the Southampton study at the beginning
of the month, and is calling for action on labelling as well as

The Southampton study, commissioned by the FSA, concluded that cocktails of artificial colours and the preservative sodium benzoate can have an effect on children with hyperactivity or ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

Following a review of the results by its Committee on Toxicology, the agency sent out updated advise to parents that eliminating them from the diet could have some benefits for such children.

This stance has attracted round criticisms from a number of quarters, including consumer groups and food academics, that the FSA is pandering to the food industry instead of pressurising for less use of the offending additives.

Yesterday, however, following the open board meeting, Dame Deirde Hutton, chair of the FSA board, said: "The board expresses its astonishment that industry has not moved more quickly to remove these artificial colours from their products, in the light of serious concerns raised by consumers."

This indicates that the agency is taking on board the criticism, and seeking to target action at a different quarter.

However the angle the agency is not only about reformulation to remove additives, but also about clear labelling where they are used.

"The agency recognises that it is not always easy for consumers to identify these colours and is urging industry to make it easier for people to know which products contain them," Dame Hutton continues.

Under European regulations all food additives, be they natural or artificial, are assigned an 'E' number.

This E-number can be used on packaging and ingredients lists in place of the full name.

But since there are hundreds of E-numbers in all, it can be hard for consumers to remember which they wish to avoid.

The additives included in the mixes used in the study were Mix A sunset yellow (E110), tartrazine (E102), carmoisine (E122), ponceau 4R (E124), quinoline yellow (E104), allura red (E129) and sodium benzoate (E110).

New EU-wide labelling regulations for foods are presently in the works, and in the meantime the FSA has proposed a traffic light labelling scheme to help consumers identify foods that are good and not-so-good for them, based on a nutrient profiling model.

However neither this, nor the alternative guidance daily amount (GDA) system devised by the CIAA, deal with additives.

Rather, they are focused on foods that are high in sugar, salt and fat.

In fact, given the consumer resistance to artificial additives - generated in part by wide-ranging media coverage of the Southampton study - having to flag up the presence of the questionable colours and sodium benzoate would be so detrimental to sales that food manufacturers may as well remove them altogether.

The new statement is not the first indication that the FSA is regretting its initial softly softly approach.

Dame Hutton, chair of the FSA board, gave some ground on September 12, the week after the publication of the study, when she said during a speech on risk and regulation at the Cambridge Conference on Regulation, Inspection and Improvement, that the agency may not "have got the balance quite right".

"We could have talked more about how we are pushing the food industry to give parents more information sooner to help them make choices.

And we weren't clear enough about why an immediate ban wasn't the answer - actually because there is no overriding public safety risk."

Professor Jim Stevenson, author of the Southampton study, told the board meeting yesterday that he thinks the additives in question puts children's psychological health at risk.

"We know that hyperactivity in a young child is a risk factor for, for example, later difficulties in school.

"Certainly it is associated with difficulties in learning to read.

It is also associated with wider behavioural difficulties in middle childhood, such as conduct disorder.

"I feel that the effects we are seeing here are sufficiently great to represent a threat to health."

The food industry has repeatedly stressed in the last few weeks that there has been a concerted effort by manufacturers to reformulate away from use of additives.

In a response to a comment published in Decision News Media websites, Julian Hunt, communications director of the Food and Drink Federation, said: "The biggest trend in the UK market in recent years has been for manufacturers and retailers to reduce the use of additives in their products, as well as replacing additives used with non-artificial alternatives.

"Our industry prospers solely on its ability to meet consumer demands for products that look good, taste great and are safe.

That's the one immutable law of the grocery sector.

And our ongoing work to address consumer concerns about additives shows not only that we are a responsive industry, but we are responsible too."

This effort appears to be borne out by data released by Mintel, a market analyst, this week, which indicates that almost a quarter of food products (24 per cent ) launched this year and listed in its Global New Products Database are marketed as additive- or preservative-free.

Indeed since the Southampton study, confectionery giants Cadbury Trebor Bassett and Mars UK are amongst the companies that have said they will remove the additives from their products.

Following the meeting yesterday Dame Hutton also said that she will be writing to European Commissioner Kyprianou shortly, to urge the European Commission to act swiftly in the interests of consumers regarding the use of the colours across Europe.

"It was agreed that that the agency should update the European parliament and arrange briefing as appropriate."

The European Food Safety Authority has already said that it will include the Southampton study in its ongoing review of science on the safety of all food colours.

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